A top legislator is calling for a full and transparent review of the secretive police intelligence agency that a state trooper-turned-whistleblower says has been conducting warrantless surveillance of Mainers, including collecting information on legal gun owners and activist groups.

But on Friday, the state’s top public safety officials pushed back against the allegations and reiterated their confidence in two midlevel managers named in the trooper’s whistleblower lawsuit. Commissioner of Public Safety Michael Sauschuck and Maine State Police Col. John Cote stood behind the Maine Information Analysis Center, saying it follows state and federal laws and best-practices to safeguard citizens’ privacy and civil liberties.

Rep. Charlotte Warren, D-Hallowell, who co-chairs the legislature’s committee on Criminal Justice and Public Safety and has long advocated for more transparent oversight of the so-called fusion center, said she plans to call Sauschuck to testify and answer questions about whether the program has been complying with state and federal privacy laws.

“This situation needs a full review and that full review needs to be completely transparent,” Warren said. “One of the first orders of business is that Commissioner Sauschuck needs to come in front of the criminal justice and public safety committee for a public briefing where all questions are asked and answered. Every single piece of Maine state government that’s paid for by Maine people like you and me should be transparent. Full stop.”

Gov. Janet Mills this week side-stepped questions about whether her administration would take action in response to the allegations, and on Friday released a statement in which she deferred to the federal court process. Her office did not respond to follow up questions.

“The allegations in the lawsuit predate the Mills administration and will be heard through the court system, which the governor hopes will provide a full airing of the facts,” Mills spokeswoman Linsday Crete said in an email. “We refer you to the Attorney General’s Office for any further comment regarding the suit given it is currently in litigation.”

Crete is correct. Mills’s administration began Jan. 2, 2019, but for the previous decade Mills served as Maine Attorney General, and one of her staffers, Charles Leadbetter, served on the Information Analysis Center’s advisory panel, which is charged with ensuring that the intelligence agency protects the privacy and civil rights of Mainers while carrying out its law enforcement mission.

It’s unclear what power that advisory board had over the conduct of the Information Analysis Center, which was created by a governor’s executive order in 2006. The order has granted the fusion center sweeping power, but it does not provide for an oversight structure.

In a 2015 interview with the Press Herald, former advisory board member Daniel Wathen, a retired chief Justice of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, said that at that time, years had passed since the board met or tried to evaluate the center’s activities.

“It was rather hard to get your hands around what they were actually doing,” Wathen recalled.

In an interview Friday, Wathen said that the fusion center’s oversight structure has been retooled in recent years, including revisions to its board bylaws and the publication of a 44-page privacy policy, which is available to the public.

The board’s role shifted over time, as well, Wathen said. In the beginning, the board helped ensure the center was following state and federal policies, and met with varying frequency over the years. The board did not keep formal agendas or minutes, he said, and had the power only to offer advice.

Wathen declined to discuss any issues related to the lawsuit’s allegations, or what role the board played in interpreting matters of law or setting policy for the agency.

The informal structure continued for nearly a decade, Wathen said, until finally he and others urged formalization of the group’s administrative structure, a process that was only completed in late 2019.

“(The board of advisers) was created by an executive order by Gov. (John) Baldacci, and it was open-ended,” Wathen said. “There was no term. There was no beginning, no end. And so as the years went by, I said, ‘You really ought to formalize this in some way.'”

Wathen said his membership on the board ended in October 2019, when he learned that new bylaws for the oversight board had been ratified. Those bylaws are not published on the agency’s website, but they apparently expanded the oversight board to include a dozen people. Currently, all but three work for government or law enforcement. Wathen said he did not have easy access to the new bylaws or other retooled documents, and a Freedom of Access Act request for them is pending with the Maine State Police.

The push for added transparency at the Information Analysis Center mirrors efforts in other states over the last decade. As information sharing technology penetrates deeper into all aspects of modern society, calls have increased for more oversight of government’s use of technological spying tools against citizens.

Warren has pushed for the center to have more transparency for years, including in 2015, when she submitted legislation to give greater oversight power to its board of advisers. That bill failed to pass, and Warren has said that the fusion center is a rare topic of discussion in her committee, and only comes up when she starts the conversation. Warren said she’d also never seen an audit of the group’s activities or an accounting of its budget.

“I don’t have all the facts, and I don’t want to jump to any conclusions,” Warren said. “But I have questions. I’ve spoken to a couple of other (committee) members. They have questions. And I’m sure the Maine people have questions.”

The allegations of wrongdoing are contained in a federal civil lawsuit filed last week by state trooper George Loder, who alleges he was retaliated against and demoted after he called out what he believed were illegal data collection practices at the police intelligence center. Loder’s lawsuit focuses on the alleged employment discrimination he suffered, and it is unclear what role the alleged illegal practices may play in resolving his dispute with state police.

“As a matter of policy and on the advice of the Maine Attorney General’s Office, we will not comment on the specific aspects of on-going civil litigation,” Sauschuck and Cote said in a joint statement released Friday afternoon. “We would, however, like to take this opportunity to express our confidence that our fusion center is operating in accordance with applicable laws, policies, procedures and best practices that safeguard people’s privacy, civil rights and civil liberties.”

Sauschuck and Cote also expressed their “full faith and confidence” in two fusion center managers named in the suit, Lieutenants Michael Johnston and Scott Ireland.

“Both are experienced, well-respected leaders,” Sauschuck and Cote said. “Lieutenants Ireland and Johnston are individually credited with many successful achievements and accomplishments in challenging commands and roles within our agency. The core values of the state police are integrity, fairness, compassion and excellence. We remain steadfast in our commitment to these principles, to our members, and to the citizens we are proud to serve.”

Loder, of Scarborough, is currently employed as a trooper, but the allegations contained in the suit date to a period between about 2013 and 2018, when he was a state police detective assigned to a Maine-based anti-terrorism task force run by the FBI. In that role, Loder sat in on weekly meetings with fusion center staff and learned of the alleged wrongdoing.

The lawsuit says that in September 2018 the fusion center targeted people demonstrating against the controversial Central Maine Power transmission line project, and shared what it learned about the activists with CMP. In other instances, it collected and retained information on counselors and volunteers for the group Seeds of Peace, which runs a camp in Maine for young people from conflict areas around the world who are encouraged to develop the skills and understanding needed to foster peace in their native lands.

Other alleged privacy violations include the illegal use of data collected from license plate readers maintained in other states to target suspected drug traffickers with Maine-registered vehicles. Loder’s lawsuit also says the state police, who conduct background checks on people seeking to buy guns through federally licensed gun dealers, illegally retained their personal information, creating a de-facto gun ownership registry, in violation of federal law.

Joining Warren in calling for a transparent inquiry is David Trahan, the executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, which advocates on issues around hunting, fishing and trapping, and has frequently lobbied against gun legislation it sees as onerous or too restrictive. For his members, the allegations of a gun registry are frightening, he said.

Trahan said an immediate inquiry by government would stop further damage to the reputation of law enforcement.

“The longer it goes, the worse it is for the state police,” Trahan said. “We should do an investigation sooner rather than later. For the state police’s credibility, the quicker we get to the facts, the better. If it lingers out there for too long, people will have their own conspiracy theories.”

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